Are Kids Doing Too Much? The Importance of Sleep

Busy Kids

In today’s society the temptation is to keep our kids busy all the time. My wife and I have been guilty of that ourselves. But it is so important to build downtime into both ours and our children’s schedules. It is necessary for healthy development of the body and the mind.

The ultimate form of downtime is sleep. We obviously need to ensure our kids get enough sleep. We all need to sleep. As much as I would like to have more hours in the day, robbing them from my sleep time never seems to work. There are physiological reasons for this.

Some people need less sleep than others and you need different amounts of sleep at different points in your life. For kids, sleep is incredibly important for their mental and physical development.

Recharge the batteries

Sleep is literally a time for the brain to recharge. Just like a rechargeable battery is ‘filled up’ again by putting it on the charger, so does sleep recharge our brains. Activity during the day actually uses up brain molecules required for signaling and processing thoughts. These molecules are remade during sleep to fill the reservoir back up for use the next day.

Studies show that growth hormones in the brain are at lower levels after sleep deprivation. These hormones are necessary for allowing the brain to create new connections during learning and they help maintain the connections already there. Sleep regenerates these in the brain, allowing enhanced performance the following day.

Improve Memory

In addition to sleep effecting how you perform the next day, sleep also effects how well you learned the previous day. Huh? How can a good night of sleep affect what you learned the day before?

Sleep is the time that memories are consolidated and strengthened. Even though your kids may get a good night sleep before school, they will retain what they learn in school if they get another good night sleep after school.

Studies show that the brain actually replays activities of the day during sleep and that this replaying strengthens the ability to recall the experience. This applies to academic and physical experiences. Meaning that sleep helps consolidate ‘muscle memory’ from motor skills practiced that day as well intellectual memory. Whether it’s playing sports, playing a musical instrument, or learning math, the skills are enhanced by sleep.

In a related study, researchers took two groups of people, taught them an identical task, and tested them on it three days later. One group was sleep deprived the night after they learned the task and the other group was not. Both groups got adequate sleep for two more nights so that neither was sleep deprived on the day of testing.

The group that did not get enough sleep the night after the task, performed much more poorly on the test than the other group the received adequate sleep after learning. This demonstrates again that consolidating experiences the night after learning is just as important as getting adequate sleep before learning.

Sleep set’s your kids up for a successful day by improving their attention and then it drives those experiences home by replaying them again.

Improve Grades

It should be no surprise that the quality of children’s grades relate to the quantity of their sleep. Several studies have shown a strong correlation between performance in school and sleep schedule. Kids that get less sleep have worse grades.

In some studies the difference in sleep is not that large between the ‘A and B’ student’s and the ‘C and below’ students. Some studies show that the average difference between these groups of students is only about 30 minutes of total sleep time. This suggests that a little extra sleep goes a long way.

An important factor that many parents may not have considered is the bedtime delay between school nights and weekends. Weekend delay is a factor in school performance as well. Students that have greater than a two-hour difference between school night and weekend performance typically have worse grades than students who have a 1-hour delay or less.

The shift in the sleep cycle can throw the circadian rhythm off and effect neurochemicals that control attention and learning. Also, as discussed above, poor sleep on the weekends will impede consolidation of what was learned during the week.

Improve Mood

The interaction between sleep and brain chemistry applies for mood as well. There are complex systems of neruochemicals and hormones that regulate our mood. This has been a hot topic of research science for decades. We have made significant progress on understanding the system but are still really only scratching the surface.

Sleep and the circadian rhythm impact have a huge effect on this system and our mood. In some cases, lack of sleep can simply lead to irritability and lack of patience. In other cases it can contribute to more serious mood disorders, like depression.

Every parent knows that when their kids don’t get enough sleep they are cranky. Sometimes when they get too tired, they get down right nasty and unreasonable. We have all dealt with this. Well, there is a lot of neurochemistry going on behind the scenes in these cases. Lack of sleep disrupts brain serotonin levels, which play a major role in sleep and mood.

How much sleep is enough?

Total sleep is important and we, as parents, should ensure that our kids get to bed early enough to get sufficient sleep. The amount of time needed is variable from age to age and child to child but most parents have a feel for what their kids need. Typically, school age kids need more than 8 hours of sleep to perform optimally. Most kids need 9-10 hours per night.

Again, studies show that kids with greater differences between their school night bed time and weekend bedtime have more daytime sleepiness, greater depressive moods and more sleep cycle problems.

Befriend the sandman and do what’s necessary to get our kids in bed on time. Their brains will thank us for it.

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